news Thursday, May 07, 2015 - 05:30
At one point the annual Koovagam festival was the cultural pride of Tamil Nadu’s transgender community   In recent years, however, certain changes – good and bad – combined with dwindling numbers due to regional offshoots and incidents of sexual abuse, have permanently altered the festival’s character.   Nevertheless it is celebrated to this day with much reverence.   Sometime during April-May, the village of Koovagam in Villupuram district comes alive for 18 days as thousands of transgender people from across the country and abroad congregate at Koothandavar temple in celebration.   Said to be practiced for hundreds of years, the festival is a re-enactment of a Mahabharata legend about Aravaan, a son of Arjuna born out of wedlock. Legend has it that Aravaan agrees to be sacrificed to Goddess Kali, in order to win the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. His only wish was to be married and consummate his marriage before his death.   However, considering that no woman wanted to marry a man who was sentenced to die, Lord Krishna then took the form of a woman, Mohini, and marries Aravaan. The next day, Aravaan is offered in sacrifice to Goddess Kali who then devours him.   Transgender people who come to Koovagam re-enact Aravaan’s single-day marriage. The first 16 days are spent in celebration, with songs, dance, and modern-day additions such as beauty contests and plays on AIDS awareness.   On the 17th day, priests tie thaalis or mangalsutras around the necks of transgender people after performing special rituals for Aravaan. Thus, for one night, all of them become the brides of Aravaan following which is a night of celebration.    The last day signifies Aravaan’s beheading by Kali. The participants essay the role of widows, mourning the death of their husband and ripping off the thaalis, and taking off the flowers and ornaments.   Abuse at Koovagam   However, some prominent transgender figures in Tamil Nadu have stayed away from the festival this year, owing to sexual harassment and even assault at the event.   “Transgenders have been abused since time immemorial and there is so much hue and cry over rape of a girl, but for transgenders no one gives a damn,” said Ponni, a participant at the festival.   But most transgender people are either reluctant to talk about it, or brush it off as a one-off incident. As Ilakvi from Salem puts it, “it is the pull of the event, ambience and the company that matters”.   According to Sudha S, belonging to a Chennai-based NGO, there were fewer instances of abuse compared to earlier years. “I have been going for twelve years. That time we faced problems from the police and locals.”   The festival has also transformed into a space enabling the Tamil Nadu government and NGOs to reach out to the transgender community.   “We organised health camps, knowledge-enhancing events and at least 13,000 condoms were distributed during the festival this year,” said Bhakthavachalam, the director of Association for Rural Mass India, an NGO which has tied up with the Tamil Nadu State Aids Control Society in conducting the events.   Reduced numbers   While it is considered to be the largest transgender festival in India, this year, however, most of the participants only came from Tamil Nadu, with Bhakthavachalam saying that numbers are down from the 3,000 to 5,000 people they used to get in previous years.   This could be attributed to the number of regional offshoots that have sprung up in other districts of the state. In Puliyar Koopam and Thiruvanamalai festivals have begun to be celebrated on a small scale.   But for those to come to Koovagam, the festival is a chance to interact with people from other cities and countries. "I have been coming here for eight years now. It's mainly an occasion for us to meet new people from Mumbai, Kolkata and even foreign countries," said Aishwarya, an MA History graduate who attended this year's festival.   This year, the festival had a look of renewed hope over news of the Rajya Sabha passing the Transgender Persons Bill, which was introduced as a private bill by DMK MP Tiruchi Siva. The bill seeks to provide two percent reservation in education and employment for the transgender community. In recognition of this, Siva was felicitated at the festival.   As with any other community, things have improved, but a lot needs to be changed before the community can lead dignified lives. The winner of this year's Koovagam beauty contest, Praveena, echoed the thoughts of her community when she said that people regarded their entire community in bad light.   With a crown adorning her head, she said: “Give us [more rights and opportunities] and see what we are able to achieve.”   In pictures: Pomp and splendor at Koovagam festival of transgender community   Pictures courtesy: Karal Marx L    
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